“The Rape of Europa” (1559–1562) by Titian.

Titian comes together

Six masterpieces that Titian painted for Philip II of Spain have been reunited for the first time since the 16th century.

BOSTON — “Flesh,” said Willem de Kooning, “is the reason oil paint was invented.” Four hundred years before de Kooning, Titian was the first to make that axiom seem true. He rendered bodies more convincingly than any painter before him. Softening outlines, he set smooth, thinly painted passages against textured impasto (paint that stands out from the surface) and laid multiple glazes over his painted brushstrokes so that his complex colors appeared as if seen through tinted glass.

Still, why would a display of just six Titian paintings at a small New England museum qualify as the art event of the year, and possibly the decade?

It’s not just because Titian was the greatest painter Italy ever produced or because the six were painted for his most important patron, Philip II of Spain. It’s because they are arguably his boldest, most beautiful works; because even though they were made to hang together, they have not been physically united since the 16th century and because the exhibition, “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” won’t be repeated in our lifetimes: The barriers to doing so — cost, logistics, legal restrictions and the fragility of the works themselves — are simply too great. The show opened in London before traveling to Madrid and is now at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — the final and only U.S. venue — through Jan. 2.

Titian’s six paintings, which he referred to as “poesie” (poetic inventions), were based on Greek myths, as told by the Roman poet Ovid in his “Metamorphoses.” At a time when painting was still competing for prestige with the other arts, Titian intended the works to rival and even outdo great poetry.

By this point in his career — the middle of the 16th century — Titian was already renowned throughout Europe as a painter of portraits, religious pictures and mythological paintings, including the Louvre’s “Man with a Glove,” two altarpieces for the Frari Church in Venice and a still-radiant nude, the “Venus of Urbino.” He promised to paint the series of poesie during his second (and, as it turned out, final) meeting with Philip in Augsburg, Germany, in 1550-1551.

Philip was still a prince. His father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had been Titian’s most powerful patron and a close confidante. But Charles would die in 1558, and Philip was in line to inherit most of the territory under his father’s dominion. As an avid collector who recognized Titian’s genius, he wanted to give the painter a free hand to create a cycle of major paintings to adorn his palace. The results, which showed artists like Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens what painting was capable of, were sent to Philip between 1553 and 1562, but they were displayed together for only a few short decades before being dispersed.

“Philip II” (1549–1550) by Titian.
“Philip II” (1549–1550) by Titian. (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

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Today, only one of the poesie is owned by a Spanish museum (the Prado); one is in Boston (at the Gardner); and the other four are owned by institutions in the United Kingdom. (About 10 years ago, the National Gallery in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh agreed to purchase two of them — “Diana and Callisto” and “Diana and Actaeon” — from the Duke of Sutherland for 95 million pounds total, the equivalent today of about $130 million).

“What do I ask of a painting?” said the British painter Lucian Freud. “I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” All six of the poesie do exactly that. Charged with danger and suspense, they are about love, cruelty, loss and the paradoxes of sight. Titian’s astonishingly vivid naturalism (you believe in his inventions like no other painter) can make it harder to think of them as poetic imaginings with metaphorical meanings. And yet that’s ultimately what they are. They revolve around the transformative nature of erotic passion — a theme dear to the Greeks — and the negation of eros: death.

Philip’s enlightened commission gave Titian permission to take his art further than he had previously dared. Philip, who had been the effective ruler of Spain since he was 16, when he was also forced into his first marriage, was a serial adulterer who didn’t bother to hide his appreciation of beautiful women. So Titian’s decision to choose scenes from Ovid that offered ample opportunity to paint women’s bodies with the sensuousness for which he was already renowned was certainly calculated.

But he was too great an artist to limit himself to titillating monarchs. The stories he painted touch on the profound and terrible consequences of contact between mortals and gods. Ovid’s often wry retellings of these ancient Greek myths contain disturbing episodes. Several of the myths Titian illustrated involve the rape of mortal women by Jupiter in his various disguises. (Seduction and rape were all but synonymous in Greek mythology.)

Titian's “Rape of Europa” installed in the Red Drawing Room at Isabella Stewart Gardner's residence in Boston in 1900.
Titian's “Rape of Europa” installed in the Red Drawing Room at Isabella Stewart Gardner's residence in Boston in 1900. (Thomas E. Marr)

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No one would describe either Ovid or Titian as feminists (the movement didn’t exist until the 19th century). Yet both often reveal a surprising interest in the internal lives of women under stress and even in the aftereffects of trauma. (The “Metamorphoses” has been reinterpreted by many female authors, including Nina MacLaughlin in her brilliant 2019 “re-singing” of Ovid, “Wake, Siren.”)

One of the cycle’s themes — the perils for humans in trying to rival the gods — was pertinent not only for a figure like Philip — soon to inherit what was then the world’s most powerful kingdom — but for Titian, whose ability to create an illusion of life on canvas seemed to rival God’s. Yet of course, Titian — the “most poetic and temperamentally balanced of great artists,” according to his biographer Sheila Hale — was mortal. He was plagued by ailments, money troubles, wayward offspring and slights to his pride. And amid all the visual splendor of the poesie, one senses intimations of mortality. Every passage of sumptuous luminosity is encroached upon by foreshadowing of death.

The cycle’s cumulative effect, which this exhibition finally allows us to experience, is of human tragedy unfolding within an earthly realm charged by divine presence. Its impact is overwhelming — comparable to the sense of complication and slow-motion collapse embedded in the onrushing plots and dazzling wordplay of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.


About 1551-1553
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(The Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London/© Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust)

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“Danaë,” the first of the six poesie Titian sent to Prince Philip, is the most frankly sexy. The painting was intended, as Hale bluntly put it, “for a young, sexually active man in his prime.” For Titian, who knew how to curry favor, it functioned as an advertisement, an emissary. He wanted to whet the appetite of a young, art-loving ruler who was to become his most important patron.

The story of Danaë is a classic Greek tale of foreshadowed tragedy. Danaë’s father, Acrisius, the king of Argos, had heard a prophecy that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. To avoid that fate — to prevent her from conceiving — he locked her up in a bronze tower. But Jupiter was able to enter the tower and impregnate Danaë by transforming himself into a shower of gold coins.

Titian depicts the moment of conception — with its disturbing overlay of sex as a function of power and wealth. Danaë’s prison guard, an old crone, tries to catch the god’s golden sperm in her apron.

Danaë’s recumbent, rippling figure, her upper torso propped up by pillows, is Titian’s response to two female figures by Michelangelo — his Leda, from “Leda and the Swan” (now lost, but known in reproduction) and the sculpted figure of “Night” in the Medici tomb. But there is no question that Titian surpassed Michelangelo as a painter of flesh. He used diluted oils with colored glazes to capture the mottled bloom of veins and arteries beneath creamy, youthful skin.

Titian had already painted one version of “Danaë,” for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the grandson of Pope Paul III. (After seeing it, one archbishop said it made Titian’s notorious earlier painting of a naked courtesan, the “Venus of Urbino,” look like a nun.) With help from his workshop, Titian painted at least four other versions. Experts continue to disagree about whether the version he painted for Philip was this one (which was reduced in size in the 18th century and belongs to the Duke of Wellington’s Apsley House) or a version now in the Prado.

Shrouding Danaë’s upper face in shadow, Titian emphasizes the upturned whites of her eyes, amplifying the ambivalence around the question of her will. Does she receive the god’s golden sperm gratefully, as both the authors of the exhibition catalogue and Hale, in her biography, argue? Or is she being overwhelmed by an act of divine rape that will force her body to function as an engine of tragic fate (the murder of her father by her son)?

If “Danaë” is thick with desire, it is also tangled with consequence. Not wanting to incur the wrath of the gods, Acrisius didn’t kill the infant, Perseus, but he had both mother and child tossed into the sea in a wooden chest. They were eventually rescued. And years later, Perseus, fulfilling the prophecy, accidentally kills Acrisius with a discus.

Accidental death by discus is not quite the same as crucifixion, but during the Renaissance there was a concerted attempted to square pagan mythology with the Bible. In some ways Danaë’s story parallels the combined New Testament episodes of the annunciation, which in turn prefigures the birth of Jesus and his death on the cross.

In the agreement hammered out with Philip, Titian made it clear he intended his “Danaë” to be paired with “Venus and Adonis.” But since “Danaë” depicts Perseus’s conception, there’s a link between it and “Perseus and Andromeda,” too.

‘Venus and Adonis’

About 1553-1554
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(Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

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In “Venus and Adonis,” Titian switches his focus from the seductiveness of a woman’s body to the irresistible beauty of a young man. His rendering of a scene he partially invented became one of his best-known and most influential paintings. He painted four versions. This one was delivered to Philip in London, two months after Philip’s arranged marriage to Mary Tudor in 1554.

The Catholic Mary was 11 years Philip’s senior, and Titian’s painting represents a moment uncannily in tune with the queen’s predicament.

To shore up Catholic Europe in its contest with Protestantism, Mary had initially proposed marrying Philip’s father, the ailing Emperor Charles V, but Charles suggested his son instead. The marriage made sense politically, but for Philip, it was an unfortunate match, and he agreed only to please his father.

Philip was Mary’s first lover, and she fell for him hard. He, on the other hand, continued his libertine life. Mary became convinced she was with child, but when the pregnancy turned out to be false, Philip departed London for Brussels. Watching his barge float down the River Thames (she wouldn’t see him again for two years), Mary is said to have sobbed uncontrollably.

In Ovid’s telling, the goddess Venus has fallen desperately in love with the handsome young Adonis after an arrow belonging to her son Cupid accidentally grazed her bosom. But she is confronted with the fact that her beloved would rather go hunting. She warns him not to chase dangerous prey, but of course he does. He is gored by a wild boar, and she arrives in her chariot too late to save him. In her grief, she sprinkles his blood all about her, and where it seeps into the Earth, beautiful flowers — anemones — grow.

Titian’s friend Ludovico Dolci, whose translations of Ovid the painter read, marveled at the way Titian captured the “distention” in the goddess’s buttocks. Upon seeing her, he wrote, “there is no man so sharp of sight and discernment that he does not believe when he sees her that she is alive.”

But Dolci’s most astute observations were reserved for the figure of Adonis. He remarked on Adonis’s combination of femininity and virility and the “pleasing tint to his flesh.” Implied in his observations is the underlying poignancy that Titian depicted so sensitively: the timeless tension between what women want from men and what boys, as they turn to men, feel fatally drawn to do outside the cocoon of love.

‘Perseus and Andromeda’

About 1554-1556
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(The Wallace Collection, London/Bridgeman Images)

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Eighteen months after dispatching “Venus and Adonis” to Philip, Titian sent “Perseus and Andromeda.” Unlike the first two in the series, this composition was entirely new.

In the story, Perseus, the result of Danaë's encounter with Jupiter, finds himself flying over Ethiopia, propelled by the winged sandals he received as a gift from Mercury. Below him he spies the beautiful young Andromeda, chained to a coastal rock.

Andromeda is the daughter of the king of Ethiopia. Her mother, Cassiopeia, has made a grave mistake: She has offended the sea nymphs by boasting that she and her daughter are more beautiful than they. The sea god Neptune takes retribution by sending a monster who advances “across the expanse of ocean, breasting the surge of the waves” to devour Andromeda.

But just as Venus had fallen for Adonis, Perseus now falls for the captive Andromeda. He tells her parents he will kill the sea monster if he can marry her. After a furious fight, in which the monster, spewing seawater and blood, repeatedly attacks the shadow that the airborne Perseus casts on the water below, Perseus slays it, rescues Andromeda and marries her.

Titian worked on the composition of “Perseus and Andromeda” for more than two years, making radical alterations as he progressed. He had planned to pair it with a painting of Medea and Jason but, abandoning that plan, substituted the “Rape of Europa,” the last in the series.

Andromeda’s body is almost shockingly soft and luminous against the dark and craggy rock. The line extending from one of her chained arms to the other creates a visual rhyme with her rescuer’s upside-down body in flight. The monster’s maw yawns wide, ready to ensnare Perseus as, with sickle-shaped sword and shield, he swoops down. (His foreshortened figure was likely Titian’s response to the descending figure of Saint Mark in “Miracle of the Slave,” painted a few years earlier by Tintoretto, his emerging rival in Venice.)

In several of the poesie paintings, Titian cast the faces of his protagonists in shadow, obscuring our sense of their inner lives, making them at once more anciently remote and more humanly familiar. Here, Andromeda turns anxiously into a dimmer light. Perseus’s face and upper body are similarly obscured as he pours himself down into peril.

“Perseus and Andromeda” has been badly damaged over the years because of the paint’s instability. The central patch of sky, for instance, is a foul and imprecise gray where it would originally have been bright. But even in its marred state, the painting gives off an astonishing vitality and élan. The trembling, white-capped sea and the deep, diagonal space both contribute to our sense that the depicted moment is a hinge on which profound things will turn.

‘Diana and Actaeon’

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(The National Gallery, London and National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

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To Lucian Freud, Titian’s two paintings of the goddess Diana and her attendant nymphs were “quite simply the most beautiful pictures in the world.” Alas, there are no reliable metrics for beauty, but what seems beyond dispute is that these are two of the most ambitious, dramatically charged and overwhelming paintings in the history of Western art.

Linked by a foreground stream that appears to continue from one canvas into the next and by the background swell of a bosky hill, his two Diana paintings depict a combined total of 19 humans and four dogs in the flickering, shadow-dappled glades around the goddess’s sacred spring. No one before Titian had put together Ovid’s two tales involving the virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon and the protector of childbirth.

In the first, “Diana and Actaeon,” the hunter Actaeon, tired and hoping to quench his thirst at a “fresh and clear spring,” has ventured into the valley of Gargafia. Instead of a replenishing trickle of water, however, he beholds a sudden deluge of female flesh. Diana and her nymphs are bathing at the spring.

A fatal error. The mortal hunter has let his eyes fall on the exposed flesh of an immortal goddess. The dogs, coiled and wary in the painting’s bottom corners, reinforce the tension of this central, profoundly unequal exchange.

It is the fashion today to talk about “the male gaze,” but here we may be confronting something even deeper than the sex-determined power divide that complicates the way humans look at one another. Titian is feeling out the very limits of mortal contact with the divine.

Snatching at a cloth, Diana is more concerned with concealing the crescent crown signifying her divinity than her naked body, as a mortal woman might be. The terrifying stag’s skull on the column foreshadows what will happen next: Diana will splash water into Actaeon’s face and taunt him with an invitation to “Go, and say what you have seen, if you can.”

But he can’t. The splashed water transforms him into an unspeaking stag who is then attacked, killed and eaten by his own dogs.

But we are not there yet. Seconds before the tragic denouement, we are still in an erotic realm, softly governed by the pleasures of looking. We are in Titian’s world. And we can’t help but notice the nymph, emerging coyly from behind the column supporting the stag’s skull. Her fingers grip the other side of the column as she gazes with undisguised longing at Actaeon — young and handsome like Adonis, but similarly doomed.

Titian has thrown everything into these paintings — not just a surfeit of skin, but a magnificent sky and landscape, stone architecture, colorful drapery, animals, water, reflections. The depicted space recedes at a slight diagonal. The whole encounter feels submerged in contending crosscurrents of liquid looking.

Everything relates to everything else. This sense of interconnection and transformation honors Ovid’s promiscuous, rolling narratives and the very tradition of Venetian painting that Titian epitomized, with its shimmering colored pigments suspended in oil, its flickering play of shadow and light, and its frank interpenetration of sensuality and mortality.

‘Diana and Callisto’

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(The National Gallery, London and National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh)

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Diana, it turns out, was a dangerous goddess to be around. And Callisto’s fate, like Actaeon’s, was the tragic consequence of a misdirected gaze. Nine months before the moment Titian depicted here, Callisto — Diana’s favorite attendant — was spied, like Danaë, by Jupiter. To win her trust, the aroused god disguised himself as Diana, and having deceived her, he raped her.

Callisto managed to conceal the resulting pregnancy. But now, as the virgin goddess and her nymphs stop to bathe in the stream, Callisto is reluctant to undress. Sensing her deception, the others strip off her tunic to reveal her swollen belly. Diana is outraged. Her sacred spring has been polluted, she declares. And with a divine gesture aimed at Callisto’s belly, she banishes her from her circle.

A month later, Callisto gives birth to Arco. Juno — Jupiter’s powerful wife — is irate. She turns Callisto into a bear. But, taking pity on her, Jupiter transports her and her son into the heavens, where they became the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor — big and little bear.

Again, so many of Titian’s details stand out amid the painting’s overall effect of richness and splendor: the women’s pearl-encrusted hair, the colored light skittering off the draped fabrics, the tender evening sky, the reflections in the “babbling brook” and the goddess’s quiver of arrows. But this, above all, is a painting of female bodies, and the movement of limbs, the swell and pucker of flesh, and the living luminosity of skin are its most arresting elements.

‘The Rape of Europa’

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(Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

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Perhaps the most astonishing parts of this painting, which seems to evoke an entire world, are two tiny foreground details: the creases in Europa’s arched foot and the small area of dimpling in her exposed thigh.

Europa was the daughter of Agenor, the king of Tyre. Like Danaë and Callisto, she had caught Jupiter’s eye. Coming down from Olympus, the god disguised himself as a tame white bull. While Europa was frolicking with her handmaidens on the beach, he joined in their games. Europa stroked the bull’s flanks and then climbed onto his back, at which point he abducted her, surging across the water from Asia to Crete. There, he took the form of a man and impregnated her.

Europa subsequently gave birth to Minos, the first in a great line of ancient European kings and law-giving judges. Her brother Cadmus, charged by her father, Agenor, with the task of finding her, wandered unsuccessfully before founding the city of Thebes and (no small achievement) inventing the alphabet.

Titian’s appeal to our sense of touch is the key to the painting’s overall credibility — the thing that makes us not only believe it but succumb to it. But his composition is equally masterful. His winged cherubs descending from top left create a deliberate rhyme with the descending figure of Perseus in “Perseus and Andromeda” — more evidence (along with the billowing pink cloths and the diagonal extension of Andromeda’s body to the left and Europa’s to the right) that Titian intended them to hang together. Their curving bows combine to create a rhyme with the serpentine flick of the bull’s tail. Damage to the surface of the painting leaves the impression that Titian intended to set it at sunset. In fact, however, he painted daylight and blue sky.

Just as the faces of Danaë, Callisto and Andromeda are half-obscured, Europa’s face is thrown into shadow by her extended right arm. There is something creepy, when you get close, about her eye: Titian has exposed the white but not the pupil, and the impression this creates, of a mortal woman being utterly and irrevocably overwhelmed by a god, is truly disturbing.

Europa’s dimpled thigh and flexed foot are astonishing little shots of reality that function like a slug of cold gin in a martini. Without it, the subject could so easily seem (as it has in countless other painters’ hands) like a preposterous fairy tale.

It is anything but. Profoundly moving, ecstatic and melancholy, the “Rape of Europa,” which was recently cleaned, is widely regarded as the most important Old Master painting in the United States. To be able to see it at last in the company of the five paintings that preceded it is a matchless gift.

“Titian: Women, Myth & Power” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, through Jan. 2.

About this story

Design and development by Joanne Lee. Copy editing by Sue Doyle. Photo research by Kelsey Ables.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.